2008 sichuan earthquake


Ai Weiwei is equally concerned with the present. In 2008, when the Sichuan earthquake struck, he visited the region in the immediate aftermath and assembled volunteers to gather the names of the dead, addressing attempts by authorities to cover up the disproportionate number of school children who died because of poorly built schools. 

He arranged 9,000 backpacks on the façade of the Haus der Kunst in Munich to represent the young lives lost, spelling out a quote from a victim’s mother: “She lived happily for seven years in this world.”

Learn more about Ai Weiwei from @theartassignment.

How An Earthquake Moved A Civilization

Sanxingdui was a Bronze Age civilization which flourished in China’s fertile Sichuan River basin. That’s a ways away from the Yellow River, cradle of Chinese civilization – or so archaeologists had thought before Sanxingdui was uncovered. It was strong for several hundred years, but around 1100 or 1200 BCE mysteriously vanished. Around that same time, a similar civilization appeared in Jinsha, about thirty miles from Sanxingdui. Archaeologists and historians generally accept that Sanxingdui became Jinsha, its culture continuing simply in a different place. Now, a new theory suggests why.

The first clue is that ravines and beds of waterways to and passing the Sanxingdui site are wider than their current amounts of water suggest should be. They were likely filled with much more water, once.  This lead to Sichuan University scientist Niannian Fan’s hypothesis that perhaps an earthquake in the mountains feeding the streams and rivers, similar to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, sharply decreased the water level in Sanxingdui. Using google earth, Fan found a stretch of mountainous terrain through which the old river would have flowed lacks signs of glacial erosion which should have been there. This mountain section’s erosion signs may have been covered up by a long-ago landslide. Finally, ancient records from the capital of the Zhou Dynasty record an earthquake which occurred in 1099 BCE. Although 300 miles from what Fan presumes is the earthquake’s epicenter near Sichuan, its magnitude would have ensured the earthquake was felt even in the Zhou capital.

This does not answer every question about Sanxingdui. Why did they move to Jinsha, specifically? How was this accomplished – over a generation, or within a harvest season or two of the earthquake? What impact did the earthquake and its aftermath have on the culture? These are questions for archaeologists to answer, as they find more evidence about both civilizations.

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China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province, a documentary on the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. In Chinese with English subtitles.